Watching “All is Lost”
2013 has been a big year for experiential cinema. “Gravity” gives viewers the experience of being lost in space. “Captain Phillips” allows them to see, hear and feel what it’s like to be taken hostage by Somali pirates. “12 Years a Slave” immerses them in the life of a slave. This week I saw “All is Lost,” a tense and visceral depiction of survival at sea. We learn little about this man — not even his name. (In the credits, he’s listed as Our Man.) But we understand what he’s feeling, hearing and seeing at any given moment.
“All is Lost” is the second film from J.C. Chandor, who made his debut with 2011’s “Margin Call,” a gripping look at the financial collapse. “All is Lost” is also pretty gripping, but in a completely different way. “Margin Call” was a talky movie that featured a dynamite ensemble cast, while “All is Lost” is a nearly wordless showcase for a screen legend: the 77-year-old Robert Redford. No other actors appear in the film, and although we do see the occasional fish, this isn’t “Life of Pi.” There are no imaginary tigers or fantastical islands to liven things up. What we get instead is nature, and the elements: the open water, a raging storm, the glare of the sun.
“All is Lost” opens with Redford writing a letter of apology, placing it in a bottle and dropping it into the sea. The film then jumps eight days back in time, to the moment when Redford’s yacht crashes into a shipping container, tearing a hole in the side. The rest of the movie is a meticulous and painstaking account of the steps Redford takes to survive. We see him studying a book on celestial navigation, making an attempt to patch his boat and learning to operate a sextant. But the setbacks are numerous. Eventually his yacht sinks, forcing him to relocate to an inflatable raft with a small supply of rations and equipment.
“All is Lost” is an impressive technical achievement, and I admired Chandor’s creative framing and eye for small, noteworthy details. At times, the film feels experimental. When Chandor shoots underwater, from beneath the raft, his footage resembles the impressionistic shapes and splashes of color found in abstract art. Such imagery helps elevate “All is Lost” from conventional survival story to something more beautiful, eerie and profound.
Even so, the film often felt a bit cold and distant to me, and I was almost always aware that I was watching an extremely well-made movie. Redford is terrific (right now, he’s my pick to win the Best Actor Oscar), but I didn’t feel that emotionally invested in his plight. Would learning a bit more about his character have helped? Maybe. But then you run the risk of saddling Our Man with a sad backstory, which is what Alfonso Cuaron did to Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.”
One of the best things about “All is Lost” is its ending, which is, to say the least, ambiguous. SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY MORE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! Redford sees a ship in the distance. It’s night, so he lights his raft on fire. But the ship doesn’t come, and Redford abandons his craft, watching it burn from the water. Then he sinks below the surface. But then he gazes upward, and sees that the ship is there. He begins swimming toward the light, his hand outstretched. The film ends. Did he die? Or was he saved?
My feeling is that he died, but not everyone agrees. I viewed his swim toward the surface as an ascension, possibly to heaven or some other kind of afterlife. The soft, glowing light and abrupt fade to black make for a surprisingly mystical conclusion to a story so rooted in the here and now. Of course, interpretations abound; many people believe the ship rescued Redford.
From a filmmaking perspective, “All is Lost” is certainly an accomplishment. But Chandor’s biggest feat might be giving audiences something to think about. And debate.
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